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Stone Age clothing suggests our ancestors were more interested in comfort than style.

Stone Age Clothing: Function Over Fashion

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One of the defining periods of early humans and their development is the Stone Age . This long era of our earliest history lasted for roughly 3.4 million years, and gradually ended between 8500 BC to 2000 BC, as metalworking began appearing more and more. 3.4 million years is a long, long time, and humans developed gradually, always changing and eventually evolving into the form that we have today.

Some of the biggest mysteries today are related to the lives and technologies of these early humans. What did they eat? How did they live? And what did they wear? This last question allows us to explore the ancient mentality of man and to discover the earliest forms of clothing and footwear ever made. Join us as we discover the world of the Stone Age clothing.

Early Research into the Appearance of Stone Age Clothing

The Paleolithic, rarely known as the Old Stone Age, is the period of human history that was marked by the dominant use of stone tools, and today covers an incredible 99% of human technological prehistory. Ever since early hominids discovered that sharpened stones could kill, destroy, and create, the prehistoric industry of stone tools was constantly developing. From early cudgels and crudely sharpened stones, to flint tools and arrowheads, all the way to the complex stone structures and heavy intricate tools - stone was the highpoint of human development for several millennia.

This period was also characterized by the societies of hunter gatherers - nomad hunters whose lives depended on abundant game and their own hunting skills. Naturally, these skills became more and more developed as time passed and hunting weapons became advanced and complex. Bows and arrows, spears and atlatls, slings, and axes - there were many deadly tools in the arsenal of the early man.

But what about their clothing? While stone easily survived the long centuries beneath the earth, organic matter did not - except in a few cases. So how exactly can we find out the usual clothing worn by Stone Age peoples?

We consider their habitat. The climates of the world are different and early people had to adapt to their surroundings. Over 3.4 million years, humans experienced at least seven ice ages, while others lived in warm climates of savannahs and deserts. Through this we can assume that their clothes were different.

A cold climate required more clothes

A cold climate required more clothes. ( anibal /Adobe Stock)

Then there is the question of early human mentality. It is almost certain that Stone Age man did not have any negative views of nudity whatsoever. Those people who flourished in warm climates were almost certainly naked in their times of leisure. Several important discoveries tell us that early humans painted their bodies with mud, charcoal, and ocher. Once dried, these coatings would protect from winds, scratches, thorns, and sun.

Archaeological discoveries show a big emphasis on ocher mining and its transportation over large distances. These body paints remain in widespread use among the remote tribes of Africa, who still largely live lives unchanged since the Paleolithic. Observe and you will quickly notice that nudity is normal, with almost no clothing items present. Women wear loincloths and men wear penis sheaths. And many of these tribes wear mud in their hair and on their bodies - for the same reasons as their early ancestors. Furthermore, there are almost no Stone Age sewing needles discovered in Africa, which means that without the need for protective clothing, this technology was never pursued here.

When Climate Dictates Evolution

But what about the cold climates, ice ages, and the passing centuries? That’s when the first proper clothing items begin to appear. One interesting study of the common louse shows us that it split to a distinct form of the body louse around 170,000 years ago, which gives us a critical insight into the early development of clothing.

Moreover, the earliest dated sewing needles can also provide insight - the oldest one is 60,000 years old. With the advent of colder climates and ice ages, men had to adapt. Animal fur and hides became used more often, and developed from primitive cloaks into more complex, sewn pieces of clothing. The Neanderthals had a higher tolerance to cold, and thus required less animal hides for protection, but they did use them and possessed the skill to manufacture them.

Male and female Homo neanderthalensis in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany.

Male and female Homo neanderthalensis in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany. (UNiesert/Frank Vincentz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

But for our ancestors, Homo sapiens , things were different. They were not as resilient to cold and thus had to develop complex clothing to retain their warmth. They developed more specialized tools, processed hides, and perfected sewing. Moss, flax, fibers, tree bark, and grass were all used besides hides and fur. Early man developed snow shoes for traversing deep snow, and made ropes and nets from plant fiber.

A good comparison for this lifestyle can be seen with the remote Inuit tribes of the Arctic regions. Their traditional clothing manufacturing process is a remnant of the Paleolithic, with sewing needles made from bone and ivory, and materials such as thick fur and seal skins.

Traditional clothing left: seal, right: caribou

Traditional clothing left: seal, right: caribou (Iglulik). (Ansgar Walk/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Fashionable 5,300 Years Before Gucci: Ötzi the Well-Dressed Iceman

Archaeology always gave us important glimpses into the lives of our ancestors. But as organic matter cannot survive the passing of time in many conditions, the discovery of clothing has been a rarity. But there is one discovery that was sensational in so many ways and provided a key insight into ancient clothing - Ötzi the Iceman. Even though his remains are successfully dated to the very end of the Paleolithic, and the appearance of copper, his possessions are still a valuable discovery related to the ways of Paleolithic peoples.

Ötzi is the name of a mummified man whose remains were discovered high in the Ötztal Alps, in Tyrol of South Austria, and close to the border with Italy. The remains were discovered by accident, by two German tourists who spotted a human body protruding from the partially melted glacier, high in the mountains at an altitude of 3,210 meters (10,530 feet).

Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman by Alfons & Adrie Kennis

Reconstruction of Ötzi the Iceman by Alfons & Adrie Kennis. (Thilo Parg/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Ötzi’s remains were dated to 3,345 BC, but even so, his body was preserved strikingly well by the ice. And luckily for archaeologists, all his belongings were discovered well-preserved by his side. They have been fully reconstructed with extreme accuracy and attention to detail.

At the time of his death, Ötzi wore a number of items and was perfectly dressed for his expedition to the high altitude cold mountains. He wore a cloak made from woven grass and a number of clothing items made from different skins of leather. These were leggings, belt, coat, shoes, and a loincloth. They were sewn together with sinew and often made from leather strips connected together.

On his head, Ötzi wore a bearskin cap affixed by a leather strap. The most unique part of his outfit was his shoes. Since they are quite complex and efficiently designed, scientists believe that these people had something similar to a cobbler, a person who made their shoes. Moreover, Ötzi’s shoes were of such a good design that a modern Czech footwear company desired to purchase the rights to reproduce and sell them.

His shoes were waterproof and made from several sections. The upper part was deer skin and the soles were bear skin. The shoelaces were made from cattle hide and the inside of the shoes had woven netting and they were stuffed with soft grass.

His warm coat was made from sheepskin sewn from several hides of different colors, with one part being made from goat skin. The same was true for the loincloth. Interestingly, Ötzi did not wear pants. Instead he wore leggings that went from his ankles up to his mid thighs. A simple loincloth gave him some modesty. His woven grass cloak was thick and covered his entire upper body when worn, offering him protection against the elements.

Ötzi also had a variety of tools . His weapons and tools show a fantastic insight into the transition from the Stone Age to the Chalcolithic (Copper Age). His knife had a sharpened stone blade, and his arrows were tipped with flint. But his axe had a small copper head, and was certainly his most prized possession. He had a quiver with 14 arrows, of which only two were prepared for use. He also had antler tools and a yew longbow beside him.

Ötzi carried a surprisingly elaborate backpack, which bears striking similarity to modern hiker’s robust backpacks. He also had two birch baskets and a pouch containing various berries and mushrooms, and a fire lighting kit. This entire outfit shows us what our early ancestors looked like from his region and how Paleolithic men adapted with efficiency to cold climates such as the Alps.

Stone arrow heads found with Ötzi’s body

Stone arrow heads found with Ötzi’s body . ( Wierer et al )

Thanks to the level of preservation of Ötzi’s body, modern scientists were able to deduce the most intricate details about his life from the various genetic samples they discovered. Ötzi’s stomach was well-preserved, and the contents of his last meal were even found. Thanks to the abundance of genetic material, researchers could pinpoint his birth year and his genome, as well as his place of birth and where he spent his life.

Ötzi was born just close to the modern village of Feldthurns, north of Bolzano. He spent most of his life about 50 km (31.07 miles) north from there, in the fertile valleys of the Alps. Another interesting thing that relates to his DNA is the fact that scientists were able to trace 19 Austrian men from the Tyrol region who were direct descendants of Ötzi or his close relatives.

The Development of Clothing in Different Climates

Climate certainly played a big role in the need for clothing. Modern hunter gatherer societies that still live a Stone Age way of life can easily prove to us the theory that climate dictated the evolutionary need for clothing. Australian Aborigines retained their nakedness due to their life in a hot climate, as well as the Tasmanian Aborigines.

The jungle tribes of Papua New Guinea , many of whom are still uncontacted by outsiders, still live a way of life that remains unchanged for millions of years, and they too are naked. The only items of “clothing” they have are the penis sheaths and loincloths, which are largely symbolic and decorative.

A tribal dance with members of the Jiwaka Tribe

A tribal dance with members of the Jiwaka Tribe. ( U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Terri Paden/Released )

The Amazonian tribes of South America, which is vast and still has unexplored regions as well, live the same Paleolithic way of life. They never developed the use of clothing as they simply had no need for it. The climate dictated the evolutionary needs of our ancestors. To survive the encroaching coldness, they had to adapt. And the manufacture of clothing was one of these adaptations.

But would you believe that parts of these evolutionary traits remain viable even to this day? Modern humans’ choices are largely dictated by a variety of societal and religious norms, which emphasize modesty and place a big taboo on nudity in both sexes. Think of it logically - in the hottest summer months, you can’t simply go to the bank or the restaurant without your shirt and in short shorts. This is considered inappropriate. Thus you have to sweat and be uncomfortable in order to comply with the societal norms.

But for our Stone Age ancestors, this was not the case. Open nudity was normal, and even mandatory perhaps - a crucial part of a primitive society. Male and female nudity was a direct link to fertility, and fertility meant life, victory, and the success of the tribe. When there was no need for clothing, only our biological evolutionary traits provided ample protection with body hair.

Another key role in the development of complex clothes items in the Stone Age could be related to social status. Important figures such as chieftains or shamans might have used some ceremonial pieces of clothing to emphasize their social status - clothes that they would use only on special occasions.

The Ongoing Evolution of Clothing

Next time you wear your suit, vest, and tie on a hot summer’s day because you are attending a wedding, or a knee-length open-shoulder dress on a chilly autumn day in order to look charming, ask yourself if you too are a part of an ongoing period of human evolution.

The way we dress signifies our status in society and our acceptance by it. We stopped dressing from necessity and efficiency, and have shifted more to dressing according to our social status and national identity. But who knows what the future centuries hold in store and what is the next step in the evolution of clothing?

At least we have the ability to look back at our ancestors’ ways and perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them.

Top Image: Stone Age clothing suggests our ancestors were more interested in comfort than style. Source: Gorodenkoff /Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References:

Gilligan, I. 2018. The Technology of Paleolithic Clothes. CambridgeCore. [Online] Available at:
https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/climate-clothing-and-agriculture-in-prehistory/technology-of-paleolithic-clothes/0119410EB5A9F56F06437DC1235B2B85/core-reader

Gilligan, I. 2019. Climate, Clothing, and Agriculture in Prehistory: Linking Evidence, Causes, and Effects. Cambridge University Press.

Kohl, R. 2019. What Was the Clothing During the Paleolithic Age?

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